Science, Religion, and d'Espagnat’s Veil

By Adam Frank | March 25, 2008 12:07 pm

Adam FrankBernard d’Espagnat, the French physicist and philosopher, has won the controversial Templeton Award from the even more controversial Templeton Foundation. What is not controversial is the contribution d’Espagnat has made to the understanding of fundamental issues in quantum interpretations.

I first encountered his work as an undergraduate after I came out of Intro to Quantum Mechanics wondering who had just mugged my sense of reality. I went straight to the physics library to wrap my head around what I was learning, and ran into his books.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, quantum physics is the theory of the atomic realm. It is extraordinary in its predictive capacity, and exasperating in its inability to tell us what, exactly, we are studying. When asked directly about quantum mechanical descriptions of, say, the electron, my professor said: “The electron is that to which we ascribe the properties of the electron.” That nicely summarizes where quantum leaves us in terms of thinking about what is really out there. The world is full of interpretations of the math, but no one knows which view of reality is correct.

D’Espagnat has spent his career looking deeply into the structure of the quantum physics and working with leaders in the field like John Wheeler. For the issues we have been taking on in these posts, it is his views on the relation between science and ideas of reality that are of interest. He has spoken of a “veil” that hides the view of ultimate reality from us. In his thinking, science provides a glimpse behind that veil—but there are limits.

For your reading pleasure, I include links to two articles on this subject. The first is a description, in his own words, about quantum mechanics and its implications. The second is a piece from the BBC on the “meaning” of physics.

Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
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Comments (24)

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  1. piano music | February 15, 2010
  1. Charles Schmidt
  2. Steve F.

    Hi Adam:

    In my experience, the only folks who find the Templeton Award and the Templeton Foundation controversial are those who think that mentioning science and religion in the same breath shames the sacred altar of truth. You may be drinking too deeply from the wells of New Atheism.

    Being an experimental quantum physicist – from the University of Rochester nonetheless – who did some early experiments with optical entanglement – its interesting to see D’Espagnat getting the prize. Bohm did quantum weirdness earlier and Wilzek describes it better.

    My take is that there has been a huge time lag for people to catch up with what quantum mechanics teaches about physical reality – that it (a) is basically beyond the grasp of experience, (b) that it intrinsically random, and, (c) yes, entangled. Entanglement disappears rapidly in most aspects of the work-a-day world, but the randomness remains.

    What this means for Darwinism, New Atheism, ID, and the like is that random forces drive much of evolution. Randomness is an intrinsic feature of reality, and not a proof that God – i.e, the classical physics determinate God – doesn’t exist.

    As any physicist who has looked at complex systems (phase-space and all that stuff) will tell you, the intrinsic structures of complex systems (e.g., our universe) are accessed by random processes. Does this mean that God works by random processes and quantum mechanics is His means?

    Steve F.

  3. Steve. I didn’t say I agreed with the controversy just that within the halls of the academy mention of the Foundation draws a lot heat for the reasons you express. I myself have mixed feelings. I once spent some time looking over their website in some detail. I do like that they are the only ones willing to fund work in the area and are very broad inviting proposals on projects such as the history of science to topics that touch on buddhism. This would make a good topic for a post.

  4. PeterS

    Thanks, a very thought provoking post and I am glad we have moved beyond the silliness of the ID and creationism debate.
    The ID corner of the debate is, in my opinion, just a distraction. The really important corner in the debate is the one occupied by the Snarky. Science writing and thinking now occupies centre stage in intelligent discourse. That position was once occupied by philosophers and theologists but they have yielded that position to science. So what the science community writes about the world is hugely important. Their influence is far greater than the philosophers ever were. When I refer to their writing about the world I mean their commentary outside their core competencies. I think science should be commenting and debating the world around their work, it is important for informing and guiding the community. And a large part of the comment, inevitably will be about ‘meaning’. But one group in the science community, the Snarky, have taken an extreme fundamentalist approach, denying, deriding, scorning, scoffing at and snidely attacking the ways in which people find meaning in their lives. Like Islamic fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists, Atheist fundamentalists (the Snarky) have a crudely simplified and emotionally laden message that resonates in todays world of sound bites. But the Atheist fundamentalists have the imprimatur of their science work to give apparent validity to their crude world view. And it is this that makes them so dangerous. The ID/creationism corner of the debate is so obviously preposterous that it hardly deserves any attention but the Snarky corner of the debate has a superficial plausibility that easily misleads.
    You use the words ‘controversial Templeton Foundation’ and this illustrates my point perfectly. Surely it is a good thing to invite thinkers to examine the relationship between science and religion to our experience of the world? The fact that it is regarded as controversial shows how the Snarky have distorted the debate to try and exclude competing world views. I am not referring to your use of the word controversial but to the fact that some of your peers find it controversial.

    It is interesting to speculate about why the Snarky have injected so much emotional force into propagating their world view but that should be the subject of another post.

  5. Steve F.

    Hi Adam, Peter S.

    Glad to see the calibration on the “controversial Templeton Foundation”.

    Bhuddism and science is a stunningly great topic, but not because Bhuddism is atheistic – it isn’t – but because it is so much more aware of the limitations of knowledge. It describes ultimate reality in negatives – it is not this, it is not that – as opposed to positives. This is something very compatible with the need to not form poorly framed pictures of reality – Aristotle’s model of the universe comes to mind – which then have to be laborously dismantled if science is to progress.

    Ultimately, I think what one learns from Bhuddism – and especially the Dala’i Lama – is that science and religion are totally compatible.

    But, one also learns something from Bhuddism about what you call the snarky (I notice that you use a very forgiving epithet for them, despite their murderousness in previous manifestations). In Tibet, Buddhist monks are even now being hunted down and imprisoned by the snarky. Forty years ago, their monasteries were being shelled in large numbers with considerable loss of life.

    So the potential for murderous harm to society is a proven for the snarkies. The sullens merely slow research.

    Steve F.

  6. Mike Gottschalk

    Watching you guys talking about the weirdness that the quantum world presents to you, is kinda fun for me to watch. For me, that anything could exist is a stretch; I think when most people consider the idea of nothing, they only picture empty space, which is still something. I remember the two times in which I came really close to grasping pure nothingness. When it felt like I was going to disintegrate, I had to stop. (And there weren’t any drugs or New Age conceptualizing involved- just a self designed thought experiment).

    If existence itself is the “rabbit hole”, then the quantum world looks like a rabbit hole should. What becomes “weird” to me, is the rich complexity of comprehension, and compassion, and communication that human being has so much potential for. Yet science seems to consider these potentials mundane and even relegate them to the purview of the naieve and the mathematically inept. For me, human being stands as the quintessential example of incomprehensible possibility; and adding to the weirdness, is our ability to perceive in a dimension of depth as we experience the day to day stimuli: we can feel awe; we can experience something as soulful.

    lest any of you think that I’m searching for a gap for god to fill, as a theologian, I’ll be the first to argue that the idea of god can’t solve the Mystery that existence is.

    I’m curious- is there something besides novelty that draws you guys to Quantum physics?

  7. There exists only one interpretation of quantum mechanics, and that is the many-worlds interpretation. All other so-called “interpretations” either make no attempt to actually explain quantum phenomena (such as the Statistical interpretation), or they are merely the many-worlds interpretation in denial (such as David Bohm’s pilot-wave interpretation).

    Anything that acts on reality is real and exists. Quite strange then that quantum phenomena behave exactly as if the other particles in the multiverse exist if in fact they don’t exist. If the actual physical nature of the “wave functions” and “pilot waves” are not the other particles in the multiverse, then new physical entities with their own peculiar physics are being invoked: for if these aren’t the other particles in the multiverse interacting with the particles in this universe, then we will do well to ask what is their actual physical nature? Pinball flippers, bumpers and ramps? What is their actual physical form, and why do they behave exactly as if the other particles in the multiverse exist?

    Furthermore, all wave phenomena are nothing more than particle phenomena: there is no particle-wave duality. A wave is simply a collection of particles interacting with each other. It is the particles that actually exist; the wave is simply an action by particles interacting with each other. We see this with waves through, e.g., liquids: the individual molecules are jostled about via interacting with the other molecules. Likewise, a single photon in this universe behaves as a wave because it’s interacting with the ocean of its parallel photons in the multiverse.

    Prof. Frank J. Tipler points out on pg. 95 of The Physics of Christianity (New York: Doubleday, 2007), “if the other universes and the multiverse do not exist, then quantum mechanics is objectively false. This is not a question of physics. It is a question of mathematics. I give a mathematical proof of [this] in my earlier book …” For that, see Frank J. Tipler, The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead (New York: Doubleday, 1994), Appendix I: “The Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics,” pp. 483-488.

    As well, experiments confirming “nonlocality” are actually confirming the existence of the multiverse: see Frank J. Tipler, “Does Quantum Nonlocality Exist? Bell’s Theorem and the Many-Worlds Interpretation,” arXiv:quant-ph/0003146, March 30, 2000.

    See also David Deutsch, “Comment on Lockwood,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 47, No 2 (June 1996), pp. 222-228; also released as “Comment on ‘”Many Minds” Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics by Michael Lockwood,'” 1996; available on Prof. Deutch’s website.

    Quantum mechanics is strictly deterministic across the multiverse. If one does away with causation then one also does away with the possibility of explanation, as all explanation is predicated on explicating cause-and-effect relationships. So if by “interpretation” it is meant explanation, then Prof. Deutsch’s point in his above paper about there actually only being one known interpretation of quantum mechanics is again found to be inescapable.

    And as Deutsch writes in The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes–and Its Implications (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1997), Chapter 9: “Quantum Computers,” pg. 217:

    The argument of Chapter 2, applied to *any* interference phenomenon destroys the classical idea that there is only one universe. Logically, the possibility of complex quantum computations adds nothing to a case that is already unanswerable. But it does add psychological impact. With Shor’s algorithm, the argument has been writ very large. To those who still cling to a single-universe world view, I issue this challenge: *explain how Shor’s algorithm works*. I do not merely mean predict that it will work, which is merely a matter of solving a few uncontroversial equations. I mean provide an explanation. When Shor’s algorithm has factorized a number, using 10^500 or so times the computational resources that can be seen to be present, where was that number factorized? There are only about 10^80 atoms in the entire visible universe. So if the visible universe were the extent of physical reality, physical reality would not even remotely contain the resources required to factorize such a large number. Who did factorize it, then? How, and where, was the computation performed?

    See also the below paper by Prof. Tipler:

    Frank J. Tipler, “Testing Many-Worlds Quantum Theory By Measuring Pattern Convergence Rates,” arXiv:0809.4422, September 25, 2008.

    And God has been proven to exist based upon the most reserved view of the known laws of physics. For much more on that, see Prof. Frank J. Tipler’s below paper, which among other things demonstrates that the known laws of physics (i.e., the Second Law of Thermodynamics, general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Standard Model of particle physics) require that the universe end in the Omega Point (the final cosmological singularity and state of infinite informational capacity identified as being God):

    F. J. Tipler, “The structure of the world from pure numbers,” Reports on Progress in Physics, Vol. 68, No. 4 (April 2005), pp. 897-964. Also released as “Feynman-Weinberg Quantum Gravity and the Extended Standard Model as a Theory of Everything,” arXiv:0704.3276, April 24, 2007.

    Out of 50 articles, Prof. Tipler’s above paper was selected as one of 12 for the “Highlights of 2005” accolade as “the very best articles published in Reports on Progress in Physics in 2005 [Vol. 68]. Articles were selected by the Editorial Board for their outstanding reviews of the field. They all received the highest praise from our international referees and a high number of downloads from the journal Website.” (See Richard Palmer, Publisher, “Highlights of 2005,” Reports on Progress in Physics website.)

    Reports on Progress in Physics is the leading journal of the Institute of Physics, Britain’s main professional body for physicists. Further, Reports on Progress in Physics has a higher impact factor (according to Journal Citation Reports) than Physical Review Letters, which is the most prestigious American physics journal (one, incidently, which Prof. Tipler has been published in more than once). A journal’s impact factor reflects the importance the science community places in that journal in the sense of actually citing its papers in their own papers. (And just to point out, Tipler’s 2005 Reports on Progress in Physics paper could not have been published in Physical Review Letters since said paper is nearly book-length, and hence not a “letter” as defined by the latter journal.)

    See also the below resources for further information on the Omega Point Theory:

    Theophysics: God Is the Ultimate Physicist (a website on GeoCities)

    Tipler is Professor of Mathematics and Physics (joint appointment) at Tulane University. His Ph.D. is in the field of global general relativity (the same rarefied field that Profs. Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking developed), and he is also an expert in particle physics and computer science. His Omega Point Theory has been published in a number of prestigious peer-reviewed physics and science journals in addition to Reports on Progress in Physics, such as Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (one of the world’s leading astrophysics journals), Physics Letters B, the International Journal of Theoretical Physics, etc.

    Prof. John A. Wheeler (the father of most relativity research in the U.S.) wrote that “Frank Tipler is widely known for important concepts and theorems in general relativity and gravitation physics” on pg. viii in the “Foreword” to The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986) by cosmologist Prof. John D. Barrow and Tipler, which was the first book wherein Tipler’s Omega Point Theory was described. On pg. ix of said book, Prof. Wheeler wrote that Chapter 10 of the book, which concerns the Omega Point Theory, “rivals in thought-provoking power any of the [other chapters].”

    The leading quantum physicist in the world, Prof. David Deutsch (inventor of the quantum computer, being the first person to mathematically describe the workings of such a device, and winner of the Institute of Physics’ 1998 Paul Dirac Medal and Prize for his work), endorses the physics of the Omega Point Theory in his book The Fabric of Reality (1997). For that, see:

    David Deutsch, extracts from Chapter 14: “The Ends of the Universe” of The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes–and Its Implications (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1997); with additional comments by Frank J. Tipler. Available on the Theophysics website.

    The only way to avoid the Omega Point cosmology is to resort to physical theories which have no experimental support and which violate the known laws of physics, such as with Prof. Stephen Hawking’s paper on the black hole information issue which is dependent on the conjectured string theory-based anti-de Sitter space/conformal field theory correspondence (AdS/CFT correspondence). See S. W. Hawking, “Information loss in black holes,” Physical Review D, Vol. 72, No. 8, 084013 (October 2005); also at arXiv:hep-th/0507171, July 18, 2005.

    That is, Prof. Hawking’s paper is based upon empirically unconfirmed physics which violate the known laws of physics. It’s an impressive testament to the Omega Point Theory’s correctness, as Hawking implicitly confirms that the known laws of physics require the universe to collapse in finite time. Hawking realizes that the black hole information issue must be resolved without violating unitarity, yet he’s forced to abandon the known laws of physics in order to avoid unitarity violation without the universe collapsing.

    Some have suggested that the universe’s current acceleration of its expansion obviates the universe collapsing (and therefore obviates the Omega Point). But as Profs. Lawrence M. Krauss and Michael S. Turner point out in “Geometry and Destiny” (General Relativity and Gravitation, Vol. 31, No. 10 [October 1999], pp. 1453-1459; also at arXiv:astro-ph/9904020, April 1, 1999), there is no set of cosmological observations which can tell us whether the universe will expand forever or eventually collapse.

    There’s a very good reason for that, because that is dependant on the actions of intelligent life. The known laws of physics provide the mechanism for the universe’s collapse. As required by the Standard Model, the net baryon number was created in the early universe by baryogenesis via electroweak quantum tunneling. This necessarily forces the Higgs field to be in a vacuum state that is not its absolute vacuum, which is the cause of the positive cosmological constant. But if the baryons in the universe were to be annihilated by the inverse of baryogenesis, again via electroweak quantum tunneling (which is allowed in the Standard Model, as baryon number minus lepton number [B – L] is conserved), then this would force the Higgs field toward its absolute vacuum, cancelling the positive cosmological constant and thereby forcing the universe to collapse. Moreover, this process would provide the ideal form of energy resource and rocket propulsion during the colonization phase of the universe.

    Prof. Tipler’s above 2005 Reports on Progress in Physics paper also demonstrates that the correct quantum gravity theory has existed since 1962, first discovered by Richard Feynman in that year, and independently discovered by Steven Weinberg and Bryce DeWitt, among others. But because these physicists were looking for equations with a finite number of terms (i.e., derivatives no higher than second order), they abandoned this qualitatively unique quantum gravity theory since in order for it to be consistent it requires an arbitrarily higher number of terms. Further, they didn’t realize that this proper theory of quantum gravity is consistent only with a certain set of boundary conditions imposed (which includes the initial Big Bang, and the final Omega Point, cosmological singularities). The equations for this theory of quantum gravity are term-by-term finite, but the same mechanism that forces each term in the series to be finite also forces the entire series to be infinite (i.e., infinities that would otherwise occur in spacetime, consequently destabilizing it, are transferred to the cosmological singularities, thereby preventing the universe from immediately collapsing into nonexistence). As Tipler notes in his 2007 book The Physics of Christianity (pp. 49 and 279), “It is a fundamental mathematical fact that this [infinite series] is the best that we can do. … This is somewhat analogous to Liouville’s theorem in complex analysis, which says that all analytic functions other than constants have singularities either a finite distance from the origin of coordinates or at infinity.”

    When combined with the Standard Model, the result is the Theory of Everything (TOE) correctly describing and unifying all the forces in physics.

  8. BobK

    When George H. W. Bush was running for President, he said he did not believe atheists should be considered to be citizens, and he said atheists are unpatriotic because ” this is one nation under God”. Now I see this term “New Atheist” used repeatedly with negative connotations – including the utterly ridiculous claim that the “New Atheists” are dangerous.

    If atheists were dangerous in any sense of the word, I guarantee you George Bush would have thought twice before making the statement noted above. And anyone who refers to the “New Atheists” as “Snarky” either hasn’t read the “Old” atheists or are engaged in superfluous rhetoric.

    I used to help at an atheist information booth at street fairs and the only time there was any conflict is when believers verbally attacked and harrassed us. One time we had a group of people actually leave their “Are You Saved?” booth to come over to our booth and agressively demand to know what right WE had to be there.

    It wasn’t atheists – new or otherwise – who committed genocide against Muslims in the Balkans, or murdered Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. And it wasn’t a band of atheists who flew airplanes into the twin towers and the Pentagon. And it sure the he’ll isn’t atheists who attack science at every opportunity.

    Equating a few outspoken atheists to millions of religionists who’s world view entails the spread of their beliefs by violence is just ignorant. What it does do is create a “middle ground” between the two ends of a false dichotomy – and of course, only “gracious and civilized” members of society get to claim that fictitious middle ground for themselves.

    If I had to spend eternity in Hell for being wrong on the question of God’s existence I would MUCH prefer to be in the company of Sam Harris and Dan Dennett both of whom DO acknowledge the existence of religious experiences – so much so that they are both actively researching those experiences using scientific principles. Neither of them is going to be suprised at being misrepresented and maligned but it is a shame when it comes from their peers who are afraid of offending people who actually believe the universe is just a few thousand years old and are demanding such idiocy be taught in science class in public schools.

    Who do you think is to blame for the fact that a majority of Americans believes in a young earth and that Darwinism is the cause of immoral behavior, and that Creationism and Intelligent Design should be taught along side evolution as a matter of fairness? It sure isn’t Dennett or Harris! As long as a majority of scientists continue to assure believers that science and faith are equal but different methods for understanding the universe and our place in it – when they secretly know that is not true, then religionists will continue to impede scientific progress and it’s potential benefits to humankind. There is precedence for this: it wasn’t until the scientific community finally realized that anti-environmental forces would never be decisively discredited unless the entire scientific community spoke with one voice about the causes and consequences of global warmng. Where would we be today if most scientists continued to refuse to lay their careers on the line and thereby lend credence to the nay- sayers?

  9. PeterS

    Bob says
    “…It wasn’t atheists – new or otherwise – who committed genocide against Muslims in the Balkans, or murdered Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. And it wasn’t a band of atheists who flew airplanes into the twin towers and the Pentagon….”

    It was Dawkins who popularised this argument, that religious belief is the primary motivation behind the widespread violence in human history. (and therefore religious belief is bad)

    There are three problems with this argument, 1) it ignores numerous, compelling counter-examples, 2) it selectively samples human history and 3) it ignores the mitigating effects of religious beliefs.

    One, it ignores numerous counter examples of terrible violence that were not religiously motivated. One need only mention Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Ruanda and Darfur as more recent examples of the fact that we are enthusiastically capable of great cruelty that has no religious motivation.

    Two, all known history is the history of warefare where we kill each other unrestrainedly. Even pre-history points to that. When Homo Sapiens expanded into Europe it had been occupied by the rugged and hardy Neanderthals for 100,000 years. Within 10,000 years they were no more. We will never know for sure but we probably exterminated them. The alternative thesis that we interbred with them seems to have been dispelled by recent genetic findings.

    Rather than blaming our war-like behaviour on religious beliefs it is much more likely that we are inherently like this as a consequence of territoriality, inherited from our primate forebears. Social cohesion is a huge advantage to war-like bands intent on expanding their territory and so leadership elites tap into myths/beliefs to promote social cohesion and gain advantages in conflict.

    Note that, in this scenario, religious beliefs are not a cause, they are something that arose independently and leadership elites then used to their own advantage when pursuing territorial gains. History is clear on this point, the human species is inherently violently aggressive and territorial.

    Three, the stated social aims of religious beliefs are broadly those of peace, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness etc (with numerous cultural, stylistic differences or emphases). One can argue that the consequent infiltration of these values through society has played no small role in gradually moving our society towards a more humane, peaceful, compassionate state. Although our violently territorial behaviour is a difficult force to keep in check.
    See this article for interesting research into how religious values infiltrate society.

  10. Mike Gottschalk

    @BobK and PeterS: Bob, a couple of my dearest friends are atheists and we get along swimmingly; and, I have no compunction to see them ‘converted’. Jesus distinguished between one’s stated religion and one’s actual religion, when in a parable, he depicted himself in the future meeting people who’s stated religion had all the classic touch stones of religious power- prophecy, casting out demons etc., and upon their meeting, Jesus says to them, “I never knew you… when I was hungry, you didn’t feed me etc.”. When this group countered with their excuse of never seeing him in such states, Jesus replied with,” whatever you’ve done to the least of these (pointing to the socially downtrodden around him) you have likewise done to me”. I think Christian thinking is mistaken when it assumes that the point of Christ’s life is to engender Christianity; I would argue that the way Jesus points to, is a way into fuller human being, and that this parable by Jesus points to his belief that form is paramount to dogma. Bob, you strike me as one with good form, as do you Peter: I like the way you distinguish between human born behavior and religious thinking, which also extends to scientific thinking as well.

  11. Mike Gottschalk

    Peter, I’m working on a religious theory that touches on your post about warring humanity; I’m drawing on some ideas from Bohm, and Bob, if you’re reading here, I’d enjoy your input as well.

    To begin with, Bohm makes a case for order being implicate to the whole of reality. I might state it this way: If reality as a whole is seen as one large broadcast of sorts, then enfolded within its signal are all the orders that can exist. What determines whether an order exists or not, is whether some receiving capacity exists or not. An example of this would be television in the sixties: while color was enfolded into the networks’ signal, our t.v. couldn’t unfold that part of the signal. I had to watch Batman in Black and white.

    I’ll jump ahead to the relevance to your posts: A lion exists, because it can unfold the enfolded order of lion. And if you were to somehow embody lion-ness in human form, you would get a Roman Caesar; that is, one who only cares about being the king of beasts and that his own appetites are sated. In contrast to the Caesar stands the Christ who unfolds an implicate order of “god”, and does so in comparison to Caesar who first claimed himself to be the son of god, and even had it decreed into Roman law. In this historical event, we are asked to distinguish between the two different embodiments of an implicate order called god- Caesar’s and Christ’s.

    I would offer that human being is unique in that we have some freedom as to what out of the implicate order we will make explicit: will we incarnate the enfolded order of the lion or the enfolded order of god?, might be the quintessential religious question. In the way that I think about things, transcendence for human being, isn’t about leaving the human dimension for a dimension that exists outside of the human world, rather, I see transcendence as delving deeper into our humanness, and embodying an order described better by the Christ than the Caesar, by a sense of god instead of the lion. In other words Peter, the history you cite, also describes our failure to embody higher orders of existence implicate within the order of the whole: that is, we fail to be fully human.

    I apologize for the intellectual leaps- I’m trying to be brief; but I hope this is enough to get a gist of this theory. Also, this theory isn’t meant to establish anything about the Christ etc; I only mean to gain insight into humanness.

  12. BobK

    @Peter: So… Just because not all violence is rooted in religious bigotry, it’s okay to call outspoken atheists “dangerous”? Of course violence has many causes – but it is often an appeal to religious bigotry that is used to fan the flames and motivate whole populations to violence.

    Hitler is the obvious case. Hitler wanted power and his use of religious bigotry as a means to achieve it is undeniable. And let’s just be clear here: Hitler was Catholic. He supported the Catholic church, and vice versa.

    Dawkins may have recently have popularized the notion that religion is dangerous, but that notion goes much farther back in history. The religion clause of the First Amendment might not exist if our Founding Fathers had not witnessed the sectarian colonial wars first hand.

    The danger of religion is not limited to inciting or being used as a tool for violence. During the Plague, the Pope ruled that lancing the boils, which greatly improved one’s chances of survival , was a mortal sin, punishable by excommunication. St. Augustine forced indigionous populations to fast until they had open, infected sores and then marched them one after another through baptismal pools – later commenting on the high rate of death in the aftermath, and praising God for having sorted out those who were truly converted from the unconverted. Or St. Cyril and his part in the murder of Hypatia and the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Or Mother Teresa’s war on contraception and family planning in the poorest places on earth. These are just a few of the reasons the “good works” of believers will never fully atone for the consequences of religious belief.

    If it wasn’t for those damn New Atheists antagonizing believers, everything would be much better. No more video taped beheadings. No more resistance to advances in science. If we could just keep the New Atheists from spouting their vitriol, everyone could live in harmony and prosperity.

    Give me a break!

  13. jayne

    Ok, but Bob… don’t you think that any position on either extreme of the continuum (be it the religious end or the atheistic end) creates distortions which are problematic with regard to a truly productive dialog here?

  14. PeterS

    Bob, even the most casual reading of history shows that the history of humankind is the history of aggression and war. And this behaviour is exhibited by all groups, regardless of their belief systems, cultures or ethnicity.
    To select a group wearing a particular label and attribute violence or wrong to that label is downright disingenuous when all label bearing groups are equally guilty.

    This is because their war-like behaviour has nothing to do with the label they are wearing. Our best understanding of this behaviour is that it is rooted in the territoriality that we inherited from our primate ancestors.
    It is present in all of us and changing or removing labels will have not the slightest effect.

    If you could wave a magic Atheist Fundamentalist wand and strip away all religious belief systems what would happen? Humankind’s innate war-like aggressive instincts are still there. Do you think they would obediently shrivel and waste away at the behest of some vague, amorphous atheistic culture of moral autonomy?

    Furthermore people are endlessly inventive in the ways they exploit ethnicity, culture and belief systems for their own ends. To blame the exploitation on a belief system is entirely wrongheaded. It is people who do the exploitation and they will continue to do so no matter what the guise.

    You see your argument is only a slightly more sophisticated form of scapegoating. And if there is anything that has done great harm to our society it is the practice of scapegoating.
    We find a convenient scapegoat, label it, parody it, parade it and attack it. It is emotionally satisfying.

  15. BobK

    @Peter: Of course you are correct that if religion were to disappear, there would still be violence, including wars. We have evolved to hold our in-group close and the out-group at bay. Religious strife is just one form of the in-group versus out-group survival strategy, but because religious belief is largely based on faith and is so deeply influential in the lives of believers, believers are especially susceptible to manipulation. I doubt the Albigensians cared much about the underlying in-group versus out-group causation of the crusade against them in which they were wiped off the face of the earth because they disagreed with the Pope about priests being allowed to marry. I doubt it would be much consolation for them to know their anti- marriage stance for priests would eventually become church doctrine. Oil may be something to fight and die for, but a religious war is guaranteed to attract more fervant soldiers than oil any day of the week.

    But all of that is irrelevant to my original point: it is ridiculous and irresponsible to create a perjorative name (New Atheists) to describe a few outspoken atheists, and call them extremists and dangerous.

    Sam Harris is no extremist. Dan Dennett is no extremist. Richard Dawkins is no extremist. Even Christopher Hirchens, who’s views I generally dislike, is no extremist. Nor are any of them dangerous. To use those terms to describe them does great damage to the meaning of those terms.

    Each of them accept as real, the religious experience. None of them suggest violence against believers. Their motivation for speaking out as atheists is a deep concern about real religious extremists in a world in which nuclear, chemical and biological weapons are becoming ever easier to make or obtain.

    They call for open, frank dialog regarding religious belief and it’s penchant for producing extremists. But no open, frank discussion can be had if the tenets of religious belief are out of bounds. Therefore, the New Atheists argue that it must be ideas, not authorities, that should be the focus of discussion.

    As Sam Harris argues, it is moderate believers who provide cover for more extremist elements by not speaking out or taking action to reduce extremist views in thief respective sects. And now we have scientists who, steeped in the tradition of assuring believers that science and religion are just two separate but equal methods of finding truth, are offended when a few scientists speak out about the threat which religious extremists pose to society. And in their offense, create a perjorative term (New Atheist) and accuse them of dangerous extremism.

    I’m hearing a lot of criticism of the New Atheists, including snide comments about them with no justification, by the author of this blog when he spoke in Seattle – NONE of it substantial. How about some specifics? Give me a quote from the New Atheists which is dangerously extreme. Then let’s see how that quote stacks up along side quotes from real extremists. But that’s too easy. Let’s see how the most offensive quote from the New Atheists stands up against say Tom Paine, Bertrand Russell, or some of our Founding Fathers.

  16. Can’t we all just evolve?

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